Iranian presidential vote: lone reformist candidate faces uphill struggle

<span>Opponents of the regime say Pezeshkian was only allowed to stand for election in order to boost turnout.</span><span>Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA</span>
Opponents of the regime say Pezeshkian was only allowed to stand for election in order to boost turnout.Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

The one reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election, a 69-year-old doctor who raised his three children alone after his wife died in a car accident, faces an uphill but not impossible battle to convince a disenchanted Iranian electorate that he represents a chance for credible change.

Masoud Pezeshkian, an MP for 20 years, was given clearance to stand by the 12-strong Guardian Council on Sunday and has until 28 June to reach the second round of the elections called after president Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash. No reformist was allowed to stand in the presidential election three years ago.

His best chance is that the ideological splits among the five other permitted candidates continue and ultimately divide their vote.

The cardiac surgeon from West Azerbaijan province was the health minister under the previous president Mohammad Khatami from 2001 to 2005 and tried to improve rural medical services. Before this, he was president of the Tabriz University of Medical Sciences.

After he lost his wife and a child in a car accident he never remarried, saying his three remaining children would not have understood. His son says that even when his mother was alive, it was the father who cooked for the family. He registered as a candidate accompanied by his daughter, holding her hand.

Although experienced in parliament, his test will come in TV debates, where he will face five other politicians that share broadly similar conservative views, including well-known hardliners. Five TV debates are scheduled before polling day, each lasting as long as three and a half hours.

Pezeshkian has already won the support of the reformist foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and most of the reformist movement, but many in Iran – especially younger voters in urban areas – have turned away from politics.

The candidate’s backers say he was critical of the government during the “women, life, freedom” protests after the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, including the morality patrols designed to crack down on women not wearing the hijab fully.

But opponents of the regime say his presence on the ballot paper is akin to a fig leaf, designed to boost turnout, and claim he ultimately supported the hijab as necessary. He is also accused of being willing to see Iran divided, a charge made due to his links with Azeris.

The regime is said to hope that the inclusion of a reformist in the field will get turnout back above 50%. It also increases the chances of a second round, which is required if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the first round.

The two frontrunners are Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of the parliament, and Saeed Jalili, a populist hardline former negotiator opposed to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Ghalibaf, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, is seen as more likely to be favoured by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, though he suffered a big loss of support in Tehran during the recent parliamentary elections, in which his vote halved.

Two reporters who exposed corruption – including allegations against Ghalibaf – were jailed on Sunday. Yashar Soltani was sentenced to 14 months in prison and Saba Azarpeik was sentenced to two years. Soltani, with 350,000 followers on X, has been a thorn in Ghalibaf’s side for years, exposing alleged corruption during his time as the mayor of Tehran in 2016.

The timing, just as the election campaign started, has been interpreted as a reminder to Iranian newspapers about how to cover the elections. Guidance issued by the regime bans advocacy of election boycotts and disallows candidates having contact with foreign hostile media.

The three other permitted candidates are Alireza Zakani, Tehran’s conservative mayor, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, an old ally of Raisi, and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a government minister.

No woman has been allowed to stand, even though four put their name forward.

The Guardian Council’s role in banning candidates from standing – on the basis of a supposedly neutral examination of their qualifications – has once again proved controversial. Three senior Iranian politicians among the 74 banned from standing – the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, and a leading reformist, Abbas Akhondi – have openly demanded the right to challenge the council’s decision.

“The council is obliged to listen to the explanations and defences of the candidates who have been rejected,” Akhondi wrote to the chair of the council. “I consider my failure to qualify as oppression and persecution against myself, the group of legal political parties, groups and personalities that nominated me as their desired candidate, as well as restricting the right of Iranian voters to choose freely.”

The former speaker Ali Larijani, a moderate conservative, and Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, a culture minister in Raisi’s cabinet, were also blocked. Larijani appeared to accept the decision in a statement, though he criticised it for not being transparent.